Zak Nigatu during Class 2A, Section 3 tournament at Lifetime Fitness tennis courts In Lakeville, Minn ]Richard.Sennott@startribune.com Richard Sennott/Star Tribune Lakeville Minn.Tuesday 5/27/2014) ** (cq)
Suzie Heideman’s oven has been working overtime.
The East Ridge boys’ tennis coach has baked treats for her team after every victory. With the Raptors going 16-2 on the year and finishing third in the Class 2A state tournament, Heideman has been busy.
“She baked a lot this season,” said senior Zekeria Nigatu, a team captain. “It’s so good. I don’t want to get into trouble, but she bakes way better than my mom does. I really hope she knows how much we appreciated the gesture. She really has a personal interest in us, our happiness and our success. She isn’t just a coach going through the motions.”
After gaining the No. 1 seed in Section 3, East Ridge defeated third-seeded Eastview 4-3 in the championship to earn its first trip to the state tournament. Then it knocked off top-seeded Mounds View in the quarterfinals.
Heideman, in her third year as coach of the Raptors, said she hoped the cookies, bars and cupcakes played a factor.
“It’s just kind of a fun thing,” she said. “I’m sure they would still be motivated. But, I like to think I had a little something to do with it.”
Minus a 5-2 loss to No. 1-ranked Mounds View on May 6, East Ridge ran the table during the regular season, including winning three tournaments. The Raptors finished runner-up to the Mustangs in the Suburban East Conference. After losing in the state tournament semifinals to Minnetonka, the Raptors defeated Elk River for third place.
“It was a super successful season; our best yet,” said Heideman, a former Mounds View player who has a 38-7 record as coach at East Ridge. “A lot of people play high school tennis and never make it to the state tournament. It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the kids. You never know when you’re going to make it back.”
Without a clear-cut No. 1 player, East Ridge relied on its depth this season.
Heideman said she employed 14 different lineups and used at least four different players at No. 1 singles this year.
“That many lineups is kind of unheard of,” Heideman said. “We called it our luxury problem, because anywhere we put people they were successful.”
Nigatu, 18, has played varsity tennis for East Ridge since the Woodbury-based school opened in 2009. In past years he played Nos. 1 through 3 singles. This year, though, he rotated between No. 1 doubles and No. 2 doubles, along with playing No. 2 singles.
He said not having a “superstar” helped the dynamic of the team.
“Since we were all so close as far as skills, we pushed each other,” he said. “If we didn’t have such balance, I don’t think all the players would’ve been as motivated. We understood anyone could play any position and be recognized as an asset. Everyone needed to pull their own weight, because we needed four matches to win. This season, everyone understood that.”
While tennis often is viewed as an individual sport, Heideman said this season her players embraced the team notion, which ultimately led to success on and off the court.
“They’re just a great group of guys, and I’m proud to be their coach,” she said. “They display great sportsmanship. That means more to me than the wins and losses. Above everything else their good people, so it’s easy to be their coach and their cheerleader.”
Nigatu, who will attend Wisconsin-Stout next year, said it’s fun to “go out with a boom.”
“Growing up and seeing my fellow classmates and players develop and mature as players and individuals has been really nice to see,” he said. “I’m really happy I was part of such a cool program.”